The convicted ringleader of a smuggling organization that brought more than 1,000 Cubans into the U.S., some of them baseball players including Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, was sentenced Monday to more than 14 years in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard rejected a request for leniency by Eliezer Lazo, whom she noted was paid $22,000 a month through the scheme — not counting the percentages of any professional baseball contracts the players signed. Prosecutors say Martin paid the Lazo group $1.2 million after signing with the Rangers in 2011.
"That's a lot of money," Lenard said.
Lazo, 41, will begin serving the sentence after finishing an unrelated five-year prison term for money laundering in a Medicare fraud case. In the smuggling case, he pleaded guilty in August to extortion conspiracy.
The Lazo organization smuggled Cubans by boat to Mexico for $10,000 each, more for the baseball players, according to court documents. They would then usually travel to the U.S. border crossing at Laredo, Texas, and ask to be permitted to stay in the U.S.
Under the U.S. "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cubans who reach dry land in the U.S. are generally allowed to remain while those intercepted at sea are returned to the communist island. Lazo's attorney, William Clay, said many of Lazo's customers were overjoyed to make it to the U.S. despite the costs.
"They had gotten what they bargained for," Clay said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said migrants who couldn't pay were held for ransom by armed guards, often threatened and sometimes beaten. Although Lazo himself did not participate in any violence, Davidson said he was well aware it was going on.
"This man is not a freedom fighter," Davidson said.
The case also provided a glimpse into how Mexican drug cartels get their cut of the migrant smuggling business. Court documents show that in the Cancun area, the Zetas cartel charges Cuban smugglers $10,000 per boat and up to $3,000 per migrant to allow them to pass through their territory and assist in paying bribes to local officials.
No evidence surfaced in the case that Martin or any of the other valuable Cuban ballplayers were mistreated. Only Martin has been identified by name in the Lazo case, but other Cuban stars such as Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig have also been smuggled through Mexico.
Aside from being free from Cuba, baseball players from that country have an incentive to go to a third country such as Mexico before signing MLB contracts. If they came directly to the U.S., they would be subject to the MLB draft and likely sign a less lucrative deal. Going to Mexico first makes them free agents looking for the highest bidder.
Martin, a speedy outfielder, signed a five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers in 2011. Last year he batted .274 and stole 31 bases.
Clay indicated he may appeal Lazo's sentence, calling it "unreasonable" because Lazo offered to cooperate with investigators before he was indicted and had only a limited role in the extortion. For his part, Lazo apologized for his crimes through a Spanish interpreter.
"I am very repentant and remorseful for the crimes I have committed," Lazo said. "I am so sorry I got involved in these issues."